President Joe Biden faces decisions rarely considered in the atomic age, including whether to elevate the alert level of US nuclear troops, in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implied threat to escalate the Ukraine war into a broader nuclear conflict.
This turn of events is all the more astounding given that Putin and Biden made a declaration at their Geneva meeting less than a year ago that seemed to support the concept that nuclear weapons were a Cold War relic. They agreed that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Putin directed his senior defence and military officials to place nuclear troops under a “special regime of combat duty” on Sunday, although it was unclear how, if at all, this would affect the status of Russian nuclear forces. Russia, like the US, maintains a high state of readiness for its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, at all times, and it is thought that Russian submarine-based nuclear missiles are similarly postured.
Putin said he was reacting to recent economic penalties imposed by the US and other Western countries in response to his invasion of Ukraine, as well as “aggressive words towards our country,” which he did not elaborate on.
In reality, Putin’s statements resemble a threat rarely heard even during the Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union had much greater nuclear arsenals and threatened the world with nuclear Armageddon.
WHAT EFFECT WILL THIS HAVE ON THE RISK OF NUCLEAR WAR?
While officials in the United States were alarmed by Putin’s remarks, they said they had no idea what he was getting at. However, it is so rare for a US or Russian leader to make an implied nuclear threat, especially in the current setting of the Ukraine conflict, that the possibility of it becoming nuclear cannot be disregarded. The president of Russia, like the president of the United States, has sole authority to order a nuclear strike.
By far, the United States and Russia have the world’s two greatest nuclear arsenals. Weapons that can be delivered by planes, submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles are among them. Nuclear weapons have only been deployed in battle once in history, when the United States destroyed Japan twice in August 1945, when the United States enjoyed a global monopoly on nuclear weapons. In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear weapon.
Putin’s decision to raise nuclear alert levels was disappointing, but not unexpected, according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, considering his past implied threats against any country that sought to stop him in Ukraine.
“Introducing nuclear weapons into the Ukraine conflict equation at this juncture is highly risky,” Kimball warned, adding that the US, President Biden, and NATO must “act with tremendous prudence” and not retaliate. “We must persuade our leaders to step away from the nuclear cliff at this critical juncture in the crisis.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ON ALERT FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
The weapons’ alert level, according to US nuclear strategy, is critical to their function in deterring attack. The concept is that being ready to respond quickly reduces the likelihood of an enemy attacking in the first place and risking unfathomable damage in reprisal.
A counterargument is that keeping ICBMs on high alert during a crisis, which the Pentagon calls the most responsive part of its nuclear arsenal, limits a president’s decision-making space and opens the prospect of ordering them launched in reaction to a false alarm. The United States’ 400 deployed ICBMs are always armed.
Some arms control experts have claimed that detaching ICBMs from their nuclear warheads would allow them to be taken off high alert. However, in a crisis, such as the one foreshadowed by Putin’s alert order Sunday, re-arming the missiles would be seen as an escalatory move that may exacerbate the situation.
During the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had more weapons that were not only more numerous but also more ready. As part of a broader effort to end the nuclear weapons race, President George H.W. Bush made the extraordinary step of ordering nuclear-capable strategic bombers off alert in 1991. Since then, the bombers have been deactivated.
SO FAR, HOW HAVE THE UNITED STATES REACTED TO PUTIN?
There’s no evidence that the Biden administration has responded in any way to Putin’s announcement that he was putting his nuclear troops on a “special regime of combat duty,” maybe because it’s unclear what that implies in practise.
There was also no information from Washington that Putin had taken alarming moves like stockpiling nuclear weapons on all or a section of Russia’s nuclear-capable air fleet or deploying extra ballistic missile submarines at sea.
Putin has at least a couple thousand so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons, including as shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles, in addition to his strategic nuclear force. They are classified as nonstrategic since they are unable to enter US territory. However, that is of little consolation to the European countries that are within range of such weapons. The US possesses approximately 200 non-strategic weapons in Europe, which are bombs that would be delivered by planes based in Europe.
Some US officials have been concerned for years that, if faced with the danger of losing a war in Europe, Putin would turn to the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, believing that this would quickly bring the battle to a close on his terms.